It’s that time of year again.
No, we're not talking about Halloween, although sniffling noses, sore throats and deep coughs are things that some parents dread more than a scary mask.
Flu season is on our doorstops. Eek.
But local health and school officials are making a push to get the word out that anyone more than 6 months old should get a flu shot – not just babies and the elderly.
The bottom line, said Denise Stinson, nurse epidemiologist and flu expert for the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health, is that school-age children are the group most at risk for catching the flu.
“They’re congregated together in large groups, and they have poor hygiene,” she said. “If you have a few cases in a school, you tend to have many cases, because of the nature of children.”
Those germs usually end up coming home, and when a household has elderly grandparents, infant siblings or other family members with chronic health issues, that can cause a dangerous ripple effect.
However, Stinson said, the elderly tend to not respond as well to the vaccine, likely because they have experienced a lot of influenzas over their lifetime and built an immunity.
Children, on the other hand, respond very well.
“We have been thinking about this: Are we vaccinating the right people?” she asked. “We (have been) concentrating our efforts on the elderly and the high-risk population, when maybe we should focus on those that are at the greatest risk – the kids.”
She says according to the Centers For Disease Control: “Let’s not be picky about who needs to get vaccinated anymore.”
John Sander, executive director of special services for the said that the district follows the state immunization guidelines, which do not include seasonal flu vaccines.
“We would be more hands-off,” he said. “If people have questions, we would say that they should contact their health-care provider. … We work with the health department to provide opportunities for families to receive their vaccinations, but flu shots are not a part of that.”
In Pierce County, children’s immunizations, including flu shots, are free. Mary Bridge Mobile Immunization Services, Franciscan Health System and Good Samaritan Hospital all provide mobile clinics that travel around the county to vaccinate children. A complete list of clinics and October schedule is available here.
Families also have the option of going to their primary-care providers to obtain the vaccine or from clinics at local pharmacies and grocery stores.
“It’s real easy to get vaccinations,” Stinson said.
Sander said that in years with a high rate of absences – because of the flu or otherwise – officials in University Place schools send out general reminders about hand washing and to keep children home if they are sick.
“But we’ve just always taken the stance that (the flu) is a family and medical situation and it’s better in the realm of their doctors,” he said.
Bridget Vandeventer, Communications and Community Relations Manager for the health department, said that things have changed since the 2009 debacle when there was an outbreak of H1N1, also called “Swine Flu,” not enough vaccine to go around and people waited in line for hours hoping to get a shot.
“We’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Now, we have great surveillance systems to know the rates of flu – where it’s hitting, who’s getting it and we are able to track and stay on top of it.
“And we haven’t seen a trend of flu yet.”
Not to say that it isn’t coming, though.
The vaccine this year, which is available in record numbers – 160 million doses nationwide – includes protection against the H1N1 flu.
There is also a nasal spray available for those ages 2 and up, which Stinson said has been shown in some studies to be more effective than a shot for children. A quick spray into each nostril coats the inside of the nose and then absorbs in the nasal mucosa and forms antibodies.
“It’s very fast,” she said. “We can immunize hundreds of kids in a couple of hours.”
And, of course, Vandeventer added, “It is really appealing to kids who are not happy about shots.”
As with any vaccination, taking their child for a flu shot is something that makes some parents wary. But Stinson said that millions of doses of the flu vaccine have been given for 40 or 50 years, thus demonstrating that it is a safe, effective vaccine.
“It is recommended that they get it every year, so it’s like, well, this is something I have to do every year,” she said. “We’re not using any new technology for the flu vaccine – it’s been the same for decades, and we monitor safety all the time … We have tons and tons of experience with it.”
Stinson said that there is a misconception that the flu is just a nuisance, when it fact it is “a really important disease.” Some years, as many as 50,000 people in the United States die of influenza.
“It’s an important problem, and I think more people are realizing that than ever after surviving a pandemic,” she said. “It got a lot of people’s attention, so it’s been kind of a good thing, because we’re getting more people vaccinated now than ever.”
An August report by the CDC said that nationally, about 50 percent of children between 6 months and 17 years are being vaccinated, but adults aged 18-50 are not getting immunized – only about 35 percent receive the flu vaccine.
Still, Stinson said, the flu “causes a lot of money and a lot of misery – and it’s vaccine preventable.
“It isn’t perfect, but it is good, and it’s probably our best weapon.”